Friday, August 2, 2013

BATTLE ZONE REMAINS

How does this guy keep from tipping over?
The Densavan bus station isn’t much by western standards. It's just a dirt lot surrounded by ramshackle restaurants. But this station is my only way out of town. The next rickety bus won't leave for for an hour, so I look for a car to take me deeper into Laos. Finding none, I locate the next best thing: a pickup truck. I agree on a fare with the driver, and his grey haired friend hops into the back to come along for the ride. (I learn more of this mysterious passenger later.) Soon we’re headed west on Highway 9.
 

The greenery scenery is amazing in this part of Laos, with banana and palm trees dotting the landscape. I’d heard this region was rugged, but the topography isn’t very mountainous, its more like rolling hills. Cruising the countryside, we pass five slow moving motorbikes packed with bananas! These banana bikes are so heavily loaded, it seems difficult for them to stay balanced. I’m surprised they don’t blow a tire from all the weight they’re carrying.

After passing an old water filled bomb crater, we slow for road construction. A backhoe is digging into a hill to make a highway drainage ditch. After the earthmover dumps its load, two barefoot boys lurking nearby jump right onto the fresh dirt piles. Each boy carries a primitive metal detector in one hand, and a probe in the other. They sweep the detectors back and forth over the newly disturbed earth, looking for very dangerous buried treasure. 



What they are seeking, is bomb shrapnel from old American air raids. Although this road is now a paved roadway, this stretch of Highway 9 used to be a major transport
Laotian boy searches for bomb shrapnel with a metal detector
route along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

According to United States Air Force bombing data, there were more than 500,000 bombing missions over Laos during the Vietnam War, and the heaviest concentration of bombing was here in the southeast. That left tons of old bomb shrapnel scattered across the countryside. This region of Laos is so dirt poor, that selling scrap metal from the war became one of the few jobs available here besides farming. Since this is so dangerous, it’s illegal to dig for scrap metal in most parts of Laos, but enforcement is lax. Children like these sometimes find unexploded ordinance as they search for shrapnel, and occasionally the old bombs explode. It’s a very hazardous occupation.

In Laos, scrap metal sells for the equivalent of about US $ 0.12 per pound. A cheap metal detector can be bought for only 100,000 kip (US $11), so some kids get a loan to buy a metal detector, and pay it off with the scrap they find in the first couple of weeks. That is, if they don’t get blown up first.
 

Leaving the diggers we get back up to speed, and I begin seeing local dwellings, along with hill tribe folk wearing dark traditional clothing. Like their breathren
A hill tribe house on stilts
in the Vietnamese highlands, most hill tribe houses are on stilts. Some are little more than shacks, and many poverty stricken villages away from the highway lack electricity. Since Laos is landlocked and mountainous, many primitive Laotian communities remained isolated from the outside world for centuries. With so many ethnic groups and different languages here, the idea of Laos as a country with its present borders didn’t really come about until the French colonists arrived. In some parts of Laos, slavery still existed even into the 20th century. Laos as we know it today is a relatively recent creation.

Like homes in Densavan, rooftops along Highway 9 are corrugated metal, or traditional thatch. Some hill tribe villages still bear evidence from those bombings decades ago. Rooftops can still be seen today, bizarrely decorated with tail fins from old US bombs. Their superstition was that these adornments would protect their homes from aerial attack. Back when the US were bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail daily, there were few targeting restrictions around here. Technology was not as advanced as they are today, so there were numerous targeting errors. Since North Vietnamese convoys were usually hidden under camouflage, it was sometimes the hill tribe villages out in the open that were targeted. The resulting destruction for the hill tribes was catastrophic.
 

Fire along Highway 9
Continuing down the highway, I see black, billowing smoke ahead. Driving closer, I see a fire burning near the road. Flames shoot 10 feet in the air from a bonfire of burning brush. This is an annual occurrence in southeast Laos, as farmers clear land for agriculture. But this is not without its hazards. As families grow, and new land is cleared for farming, rural farmers occasionally strike buried unexploded bombs with plows or hand tools. When they accidentally strike a live round, the result is injuries or fatalities. This left many hill tribe farmers afraid to clear new fields for agriculture. The presence of buried unexploded ordinance has seriously hindered the post-war recovery of Laos.

We finally reach my destination, the town of Ban Dong. As towns go, it’s not very developed. A large pig wanders down the highway, and a group of goats scatter as my truck passes. Despite the livestock on the loose, this is one of the district's larger towns. Almost everything I see was built after the war’s end. During the bombing years, every building in town was blasted into oblivion. Ban Dong is now reborn as a settlement of single story homes, a mere blip on Highway 9.

My driver pulls into a local café, with a makeshift gas station out front. I chuckle at the primitive gas pump; an old style
hand operated pump , much like US gas pumps of the 1920’s. Just across the street, an old vehicle looks even more out of place. Lying just up the hill, is an American made M-41 tank! The rusty old behemoth sits just beyond a fence, near a government building under construction.


Old US made M-41 tank, left in Ban Dong after battle in 1971
The gate isn’t locked, and nobody's around, so my little entourage and I go inside. Approaching the rusty hulk, I carefully climb up on the tank, taking care not to get burned. The tank's steel surface is burning to the touch from sunlight. You could easily cook an egg on the scorching hot metal of this tank. It must have been a very hot, dangerous life for tank crewmen back during the war. Since armored vehicles drew a lot of enemy fire, tank crews had a casualty rate even higher than the infantry.

Looking on the side of the metal monster, I see it wasn’t left here due to mechanical breakdown. This tank took an armor piercing communist round right in the side. One flank of the tank has twisted steel where the treads used to be. This field in the middle of nowhere, was the site of a major battle in Laos back in 1971. The military called this campaign, ‘Operation Lam Son 719’.
 

In 1971 the US military was reducing its ground forces in Vietnam, hoping to make the ARVN (South Vietnam Army) self-sufficient. Trying to maintain pressure on the North Vietnamese, the ARVN crossed from Vietnam into Laos to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail. ARVN troops and armored columns penetrated deep into Laos, with the US providing air support. The ARVN drove all the way here to Ban Dong, where they quickly built a fire support base. Communist spies may have tipped off the NVA that they were coming, because the plan soon unraveled.

Since the NVA were already here in Laos, they had tanks of their own, plus thousands of ground troops. They attacked the ARVN’s fire support bases, including here in Ban Dong. As happened time and again during the Vietnam War, the ARVN had to be rescued by the US military. They evacuated ARVN troops by air, and bombed the NVA as ARVN units retreated. The surviving ARVN crossed back into Vietnam, where I had crossed into Laos east of here. The invasion failed to route the NVA. From then on, the communists controlled the Ho Chi Minh Trail until the war's end. 


USSR made anti-aircraft gun, with barrels from captured artillery to the right
5,000 ARVN were killed around these hills, and the NVA probably lost more. 200 Americans were dead or missing, plus the US/ARVN side lost many helicopters and armored vehicles. In their hasty retreat, the ARVN left their damaged tanks and jeeps behind in this Band Dong field. Nearly all of them were cut up and sold for scrap by the desperately poor locals after the war. Of all those vehicles left here abandoned, only this gutted tank remains. The hatch covers and tank treads are long gone, along with most of the engine.
 

Hopping off the tank, I approach a pile of metal tubes lying in the field. Drawing closer, I find they aren’t tubes at all, they are the barrels of eight old US made howitzers, all lined up in a row. These were also captured by the NVA when the ARVN troops left their artillery behind.

Nearby an old Soviet made anti-aircraft gun points skyward, never to fire at American aircraft again. An old artillery round is sticking out of the barrel, left by some jokester. At the Russian gun's base, are disarmed US dud bombs. There are
Old US bombs, duds dropped on Laos during the war
literally tons of steel here, 250 lb, 500 lb, and 750 lb bombs lie together, jumbled into a military scrap heap. Green weeds grow between
the rusted brown bombs. Yellow butterflies flit about over this now peaceful field.

Leaving this quiet compound, I exit the gate, and head for the the café across the street. I’m joined by the two Laotians who brought me here, and it turns out that the grey haired gent who sat in the flat bed speaks some English. As I drink a soda, I learn his story.

His name is Vanh, and he says he owns a small trading shop. His English is limited, but enthusiastic nonetheless. He practices with me energetically. “Hello! How do you do? Very well, thank you!” Vanh  speaks to me with an intentionally comic energy, and I respond laughing.

In turn, he teaches me some Laotian. “Sabadee!” Vanh says. I’ve already learned that means 'hello'. “Kop Chai!” he says. That means, ‘thank you’. 


As we chat, I'm shocked to learn that
US made weapons in Vientiane museum captured from ARVN troops at battle of Lam Son 719
decades ago, Vanh was also a Pathet Lao soldier! Pathet Lao means, ‘Land of the Lao’, and back during the war years it was the communist insurgent group fighting the Royal Laotian Government, America’s ally at the time. 


Through broken English and sign languge, I gather that back in Vanh’s soldier days, he was based further south in Laos during the war. He wasn’t here in Ban Dong, when the fighting raged in 1971. Since the ARVN and US forces attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the North Vietnamese Army, the Pathet Lao were happy to let the NVA do the dirty work for them.

Since I already have a driver and I’m not paying Vanh, I’m curious as to why he's tagging along with me today. Since he's an Ex-Pathet Lao, I wonder, was he sent along to spy on me? 


My presence here may have raised some eyebrows. There are few lone foreigners that stop in this remote corner of Laos, and even fewer are American.

We finish our drinks, and climb back into the truck. There isn’t much more to see in this poor rural place, and I leave Ban Dong to continue my journey. There is much more for me to do farther to the north, in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

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